Banned From Starbucks! Or, the Dark Side of the Roast

An open letter to Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks:

Dear Mr. Schultz,

I didn’t really want to write this letter. Some advised me not to do it. Don’t take on the Empire, it’s too late to reform it. It’s a behemoth grown beyond hope of alteration or redemption. They told me I’d just be one lone individual raising his voice against a java juggernaut that professes to be all New Agey and people-centered but in fact is just about as responsive to protest as the Politburo of the People’s Republic of China. Don’t take them on again, you’ll just be like that lone dissident who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. He ain’t sipping chai lattes these days, they’d point out.

But I feel I must struggle for the soul of Starbucks, I’d say. They have no soul, they’d tell me. You’ll see, they won’t listen. And besides, why care anyway?

Because, I’d argue, coffee is too important an issue. It’s not just a matter of the soul (or absence of one) of Starbucks. It’s the soul of America, or at least its consciousness, that is at stake. Starbucks is not just another merchant selling bags of brown stuff for wads of green stuff. Starbucks is coming close to exercising the frightening kind of power Big Brother only dreamed of in Orwell’s worst nightmare: Starbucks is coming close to controlling our national consciousness. If not Big Brother, then Big Brewer.

Think about it: Coffee is a consciousness-altering drug. The idea of one individual or one corporation somehow getting the power to manipulate the mood of the nation on a mass basis is frightening, on the face of it. Look at the power of one individual, Alan Greenspan, to affect the economy by shifting interest rates up or down a quarter of a percentage point. Could it not be argued that Starbucks, with its growing monopoly on the caffeinated synapses of an entire nation, has the power–by shifting the caffeine content of their brew by as little as a quarter of a percent–to shift the mood of the nation up, down, or sideways at its will? I’m not saying they are , but, look, they could : Look at the power of tobacco companies to shift nicotine content to manipulate consumers’ consciousness on a mass basis.

I have a suspicion that a century from now fine-tuned econometrics will link the rise of the overheated, one might almost say overcaffeinated, millennial economy to the rise in the workforce’s caffeine level brought about by mass consumption of Starbucks coffee. Some postmillennial Marx will argue that capitalism finally triumphed when it realized it no longer had to crack the whip to squeeze more productivity out of its wage slaves, now they just crank the coffee–-they crack the whip internally .

Should all that potential power, the power to inject itself into our nation’s lifeblood, into our collective consciousness, all that unregulated unmonitored power go without challenge, without criticism? I don’t think so, Mr. Schultz. And so I am going to pay you the compliment of attempting to struggle for the soul of your corporation, a compliment because it implies that your corporation still has a soul, a notion many who find distasteful your commodification of warmth, your proliferation of Orwellian euphemisms (“Tall” means “short”; all your employees are “Partners”), would dispute.

There are many who believe that Starbucks has already irrevocably gone over to the Dark Side of the Roast. That it has lost whatever soul it once might have had when it started out in Seattle. But I am going to assume you have a soul, Mr. Schultz, and that if you were to look into your soul, you would be deeply distressed by two deeply disturbing trends in Starbucks’ products and its personnel: stale coffee and arrogant store managers. Two trends that converged in a story I want to tell you, Mr. Schultz, a story about how I got banned from my local Starbucks.

It was late one miserable Saturday night when I had to stay in and work when everybody else was out having fun. I was way behind in things I’d promised to complete: the revised galleys of a collection of my journalism my British publisher was reissuing and a dispatch for Slate , the on-line magazine, for which I was writing a running diary (under the rubric “The Last Luddite Gets Wired”) of my decision-making process as I purchased (with Bill Gates’ money) my first computer. (For those who haven’t read it at, I’ll give you my favorite line from the first dispatch: “In the 10 years I spent researching my book, Explaining Hitler , I never felt the need to surf the Web sites of neo-Nazi pinheads who, along with child pornographers and Bill Gates, seem to me to be the only unequivocal beneficiaries of wired culture.”) Anyway, in the middle of all this I ran out of coffee and proceeded to run out of the house and run into my local Starbucks just before it closed to get myself a pound of your Columbia Narino Supremo blend ground for my Melitta filter thing. I ran back home, brewed up a batch to keep going. But, sad to say, the coffee was stale. Really stale, with a sour metallic smell and taste. But I had to drink it because I had no other coffee in the house and I needed to stay up to make two deadlines.

This is not the first time that this has happened. I have pointed out in print in the past [“Seinfeld ‘n’ Starbucks: One Down, One to Go,” Jan. 12, 1998] that when you shifted from paper-bagged beans, which were clearly marked with a sell-by date on the bottom of each bag, to those shiny metallic Flavorlock bags, which allegedly, supposedly, putatively, lock in freshness for six months, when you made this switch to facilitate your humongous growth from roaster to mass-marketer, you sacrificed something I had always valued Starbucks for: consistent freshness. While I’ve had problems with your commodified-hip, patronizing New Agey corporate culture and rhetoric, I nonetheless could count on getting coffee that was consistently fresh and strong when I bought it in paper bags. (Beans were taken off the shelf after a week to keep the stock fresh.)

But once your drive for hugeness, for quantity of outlets and economies of scale, took over your corporate soul and bequeathed us those allegedly, supposedly, putatively Flavorlocked bags, I found the consistency was gone. I buy a lot of coffee from Starbucks, or have, anyway, in the past, because it’s consistent and convenient. But it’s not anymore. It’s still convenient, it’s more convenient than ever, it’s every two blocks in midtown Manhattan. But I no longer have confidence it’s consistent. Six months is a long time to keep coffee beans fresh: Milk can be sealed up for six months but it doesn’t taste like fresh milk. Time after time, I’ve bought beans in your allegedly, supposedly, putatively Flavorlocked-for-freshness bags and found myself tasting profound bitterness–the stale taste of betrayal.

A betrayal embodied in the encryption of the freshness dates on the allegedly, supposedly, putatively Flavorlocked bags, an encoding that conceals the date from consumers. One that is employed by Starbucks managers to disenfranchise customers like myself who complain about stale beans.

And here, Mr. Schultz, we have to talk about your Starbucks store managers. How do you do it? What kind of management training program is it that takes ordinary humans and turns them into the petty martinets I’ve encountered? You seem like a nice man, Mr. Schultz. At least from the cover of your book, you look like a mellow guy; you talk the mellow talk in your corporate rhetoric. One of your corporate slogans is mellowness itself: Just Say Yes! is your corporate watchword for dealing with customers. Well, you may talk the mellow talk, Mr. Schultz, but your managers don’t walk the mellow walk. In my experience, Starbucks managers feel it’s their job, when confronted with a complaint, to prove the customer wrong. Just Say No!

Certainly this has been my experience on a couple of occasions when I was so offended by the staleness of your allegedly, supposedly, putatively Flavorlocked coffee that I tried to return it. In each case, rather than Just Say Yes! and offer to replace the stale stuff, your managers went through an elaborate, ostentatious Inquiring Scientist routine. Staring intently at the encoded freshness date on the bottom of the allegedly, supposedly, putatively Flavorlocked package, and then, after applying their secret decoder ring or whatever encryption key they’ve been given to decipher the sell-by date that you conceal from customers, they look up in triumph and basically Just Say No . They tell me that the coffee can’t be stale because the secret coded date proves that it’s fresh. When I try to explain I don’t drink the secret code, I drink the coffee, they’ve literally just told me to my face I’m wrong, the secret code is right, end of story.

Now some people will put up with this, and I have put up with this in the past, Mr. Schultz. But not that morning. Not after having to stay up into the wee hours sipping the stale brew you sold me (because the store had closed before I could return it the night before). Not after having one too many encounters with preening martinet Starbucks managers drunk on the petty power running one of your coffee bars apparently imbues them with.

This guy was no better or worse than any of the others. That was exactly the problem, he was average, pretty much the mean . I want to emphasize that I’m speaking here not of Starbucks employees, but the managers. I’ve found Starbucks employees to be both friendly and efficient, for the most part. But there must be something in the Starbucks managers’ training program (or maybe in the extra-high-powered, manager-level lattes) that turns the managers into little despots. Is there a course where they learn to decipher Just Say Yes! as really a code meaning Just Say No ? Or maybe it’s just what being a boss means in American culture, the power to preen and bully in your little kingdom

So here, Mr. Schultz, is my experience of how Just Say Yes gets translated into Just Say No , the confrontation that got me banned from Starbucks. I come in on Sunday morning and tell the guy at the register that the coffee I bought last night was stale. He said he’d have to speak to the manager, who was back in his office. The register guy came back from the office to tell me the manager was “busy” but that he’d see me “in five minutes or so.”

When he finally was able to tear himself away from his important executive tasks (encoding the freshness dates so consumers couldn’t decipher them?) I handed him the one-pound bag and told him it was stale and would like it replaced. He went into full Starbucks manager challenged-executive mode. As if he was going to show his mettle to Seattle Headquarters by defending them against this challenge to his profit margins, to his authority, to their authority, to Authority itself.

Full manager mode meant that he stared intently at the sacred freshness date encryption hidden from consumers beneath the seam of the bag and smugly declared that the coffee could not be stale because the code proved that it was still fresh. When I tried to explain that I didn’t care what the code said, I cared about what I drank and that it was stale, he proceeded to dramatically plunge his nose into the bag (a very attractive sight) to demonstratively take a deep sniff and declare it smelled fresh to him. When I tried to point out that I wasn’t paying for himto smell it, I was paying for me to drink it, he said he’d have to check the code against some records back in his executive office. I told him that I really wasn’tinterestedin waiting around for him to conduct a full-scale investigation, he could do that on his own time. I just wanted my coffee replaced now. When he refused until he’d “checked in the back,” I asked him “What about your ‘ Just Say Yes ‘ slogan?”

“We have a lot of slogans,” he told me contemptuously.

Exactly. You have alotofslogans,Mr. Schultz, and you have, it seems from my personal sampling, a lot of managers who think of them as just that, just slogans.

At this point, things escalated:Your managerturned from Inspector Clouseau to Kenneth Starr. When I told him I wasn’t content to wait for the result of his investigation, I wanted him to replace the stale coffee now, he suddenly turned prosecutor. He hefted the bag in his hand, ostentatiously peered into it and announced, “You’ve already used up half of this!”

It was, to put it charitably, a gross falsehood: I’d only brewed two pots of it. But he was acting like he’d just cracked a major criminal conspiracy that threatened the Starbucks Empire. Bands of roving coffee drinkers buying pound bags and returning them slightly underweight. Coffee day traders! A threat to the nation’s economy, to the Starbucks Empire survival.

It was at that point, Mr. Schultz, when your manager tried to accuse me of somehow running a scam when all I wanted was fresh beans without hassle, that I decided I wasn’t going to take it anymore. I was going to make trouble. I wasn’t going to keep quiet about it.

It was at this point that your manager announced he was banning me from the premises for continuing to question him. Gee, it must be a heady feeling to banish people. Petty despots throughout the ages seem to get off on it, don’t they? Why should a Starbucks manager be denied this delicious perk of office?

Banned from Starbucks! I loved it. I wasn’t going to let it go without a fight, but for a moment I kind of relished and savored it. In fact, in retrospect, I kind of wish I had decided to just let the ban stand as a kind of badge of honor. I mean, it’s really hard to be an outlaw in America anymore. While I have problems with Herbert Marcuse’s mishmash of Marx and Freud, two stale dogmas, I always did think that Marcuse’s phrase “repressive tolerance” had some resonance for American culture. It’s hard to find oneself beyond the pale of repressive tolerance in America those days, but here I was where I probably always secretly wanted to be–on the outside, beyond the law.

I mean, wouldn’t it have been great if I were with a group of people and someone said, “Let’s stop off at Starbucks,” and I could say, “You guys go, I can’t. I’m banned. I’m America’s No. 1 Starbucks Dissident.” Then I could perhaps casually allude to that apocryphal conversation between Emerson and Thoreau when Emerson came to visit the great dissident in the solitude of his jail cell. “What are you doing in here?” Emerson supposedly asked. “What are you doing out there?” Thoreau is said to have replied.

Oh, well. Temperamentally, I love the idea of being a lonely outsider, but temperamentally I’m not a pacifist. And so, Mr. Schultz, I took on the ban by going directly to the Death Star, Starbucks corporate headquarters in Seattle, where, I’d previously won a ruling in the Great Misto Refill War [see my Jan. 12, 1998 column]. At least in part, I’m sure, because I’m a journalist with a forum, your people exhibited maximum repressive tolerance once they heard my complaint. They told me that the manager had exceeded his authority in issuing the ban, that the ban was rescinded, that I had not been treated “with the level of service” they were committed to giving all customers, for which they apologized. They even offered to have a regional manager accompany my re-entry into the store. I kind of liked that last offer. It conjured up in my mind the grand triumphant close of the first Star Wars . Here at the conclusion of my Starbucks Wars, my return to the neighborhood branch that banned me would be like the return of a Jedi to his home planet.

So I agreed to that, and when I arrived for mygrandreinstatement,theregional manager,andthestore manager who started it all, apologized and tried to make nice. But somethingbothered me about it. Not the lack of Star Wars ceremonialtrappings for my re-entry, but the fact that I was probably getting this treatment because I was a journalist. Would an ordinary customerwitha pound of stale coffee be able to get it replaced without a Ken Starr-type investigation? Do they understand customers don’t care what your stupid code says? They’re not interested. They just want fresh coffee. I’m not sure. I kind of doubt it. (I’d be interested in hearing from readers what happens to them when they try to return stale coffee to Starbucks.)

And, Mr. Schultz, don’t try to scapegoat that one manager. He’s just a symptom of a corporate culture that smiles on the outside but sneers on the inside. Instead, look into the soul of your company. I’m willing to take it on faith that you began with a genuine mission to bring better fresher coffee to America.But it’samission that Ifearhas foundered in your feverish overexpansion. And it’s more than a personal issue. Starbucks has become a national cultural issue. For better or worse, its stranglehold on our caffeinated bloodstream, on the hot-wiring of our communal synapses, seems here to stay. Which means that what Starbucks brews and sells has a disproportionate power to affect our national consciousness. Stale, bitter coffee on this mass-consumption scale can mean a stale, bitter national mindset. Starbucks may be here to stay, but Starbucks needs to be carefully watched and confronted when necessary–even at the risk of banishment. Next time, I’m not coming back in. Banned From Starbucks! Or, the Dark Side of the Roast